rivendellrose: (try science)
Okay, seriously, this is awesome.

In a blog post bearing the fabulous title "Iterating Toward Bethlehem," here is the story of a teeny little spider with "a pinpoint brain with less than a million neurons, somehow capable of mammalian-level problem-solving. And just maybe, a whole new approach to cognition."

More details, and links to the original articles in PDF, are at the link above. ♥ Further sample quote:

[W]e have here a spider who eats other spiders, who changes her foraging strategy on the fly, who resorts to trial and error techniques to lure prey into range. She will brave a full frontal assault against prey carrying an egg sac, but sneak up upon an unencumbered target of the same species. Many insects and arachnids are known for fairly complex behaviors (bumblebees are the proletarian's archetype; Sphex wasps are the cool grad-school example), but those behaviors are hardwired and inflexible. Portia here is not so rote: Portia improvises.

Nature is so freaking cool. ♥
rivendellrose: (scully red)
One of the neat things about the Flipboard app on iPad is that it makes a quick scan through news and other happenings online veeeery easy. This morning, while I was drinking my tea and going through my usual mix of New Scientist, assorted news feeds and various lifestyle blogs (where I found this lemon cake that I am now dying to try to make for Thanksgiving, but sort of afraid I am not sufficiently baker-skilled to manage), I found something (else) very interesting: it was a picture of some really beautifully-preserved mummies that had, in life, been subjected to skull flattening.

What's skull-flattening? I'm glad you asked, imaginary reader!

You see, our modern cultures around the world today aren't the first Human cultures to get the idea that something unnatural (like, say, over-inflated lips or silicon filled breats) are attractive. Most cultures throughout history seem to have practiced some kind of body alteration for the purpose of beauty, basically based on the idea that if you're spending a bunch of time and energy doing (x) to your body (or your kid's body), you must have enough resources not to be worrying about whether or not you're going to eat today. Body modification, whether it's scarring, foot-binding, or, in this case, strapping boards to your infant's head to flatten and elongate his or her skull while it's still soft, is a great way to advertize that you don't have to spend your time working. In other words, it's like having really absurdly long fake nails, high heels, absurdly exaggerated musculature, or a perfect tan even in winter. It's a sign that says "I'm so successful I can waste my energy on stuff that doesn't make sense from a pure survival standpoint!"

Think of it like the Human equivalent of a peacock tail. It's a shitty idea as far as avoiding predators, but the people around you (particularly the lady peacocks) think it's damned impressive, and from an evolutionary standpoint, that's what matters.

So, hey, this is exciting! I've seen illustrations of people with flattened foreheads, and I've seen a few dull pictures of the skulls, but I'd never seen anything so nicely preserved. I got very excited. ...And then I noticed the headline next to the photo.

"Scientists think this triangular skull belongs to an alien"

Um, what? No... no, not if they've ever so much as flipped through a basic archaeology textbook, they don't. Especially not since the skulls were found in Peru. Guess what region notably picked skull-flattening out of the bazillion body-modification options available to pre-industrial humanity? Peru. I even looked it up for you, to prove it - a quick Google search for "peru skull-flattening" gets you this Wikipedia article on artificial cranial deformation, which is the technical term for this kind of body mod. Down under "Reasons" you'll see a great little diagram of the methods the Mayans used, and next to the "History" section are a pair of skulls pictured underneath an 18th century painting of a Chinookan child undergoing the process, being held by a woman on whom the adult result can be seen. The top skull is labeled as Incan. Where did the Inca live, ladies and gentlemen? Peru. Relevant quote:

Artificial cranial deformation, head flattening, or head binding is a form of permanent body alteration in which the skull of a human being is intentionally deformed. It is done by distorting the normal growth of a child's skull by applying force. Flat shapes, elongated ones (produced by binding between two pieces of wood), rounded ones (binding in cloth) and conical ones are among those chosen.

Take another look at that Inca skull. Now look at the 'alien' mummies. I think I'll rest my case.

I shall refrain from commenting on the probable credentials of those Russian and Spanish "doctors" who think these things are from outer space, except to say that there's no law anywhere saying a total crackpot nutjob can't have a PhD in something. Io9 has an article about the same thing. I like to think they're being more than a little tongue-in-cheek about it, which makes me happy, but they're not quite clear enough about the "wtf, no" as I might prefer.
rivendellrose: (octopus)
So, I'm behind in this whole internet thing due to the wedding and the honeymoon, but here's a good one - have you all heard the story about the prehistoric kraken making self-portraits out of its enemies' bodies?

If that doesn't make you go "huh, WHAT?" then you've probably already read the io9 article linked above. But have you read the actual abstract they link to? No shit, it's an actual abstract written by an actual professor at an actual college for an actual conference. Believe me - I checked. Because I just could not believe this guy was for real. He's even an honest-to-goodness geology professor there, not a wandering professor of philosophy or something who'd got lost and gone to the wrong conference. Or, y'know, even more reasonably, a professor of creative writing. Nope. Actual geology prof. Googling his co-author (and, presumably, wife) turns up mostly the books they've co-authored, and also her Facebook page (oh, age of the internet, how sort of scary you are!)... in which we find out that she is a fan of science fiction, particularly of Firefly (awesome!)... and, less impressively, that she was part of that slightly hare-brained attempt a while ago to help Nathan Fillion buy Firefly. Because that was totally a plausible thing, guys, really. Even though Nathan himself was like "dudes, chill" when he heard people were actually trying to raise money for it. Um. Yeah. Her trustworthiness just went down a bit in my estimation, if you want the honest truth... but hey, everybody can get sucked into a wacky idea from time to time.

...Like, for instance, the idea that a bunch of dead ichthyosaurs were murdered by super-giant squid and intentionally placed in an intentional pattern. No, seriously. Direct quote from the abstract:

We hypothesize that the shonisaurs were killed and carried to the site by an enormous Triassic cephalopod, a “kraken,” with estimated length of approximately 30 m, twice that of the modern Colossal Squid Mesonychoteuthis. In this scenario, shonisaurs were ambushed by a Triassic kraken, drowned, and dumped on a midden like that of a modern octopus. [...] The proposed Triassic kraken, which could have been the most intelligent invertebrate ever, arranged the vertebral discs in biserial patterns, with individual pieces nesting in a fitted fashion as if they were part of a puzzle. The arranged vertebrae resemble the pattern of sucker discs on a cephalopod tentacle, with each amphicoelous vertebra strongly resembling a coleoid sucker. Thus the tessellated vertebral disc pavement may represent the earliest known self‑portrait.

I might have been with them up until "The proposed Triassic kraken, which could have been the most intelligent invertebrate ever..."

The proposed kraken. Because, you see, we don't have any evidence of this kraken. None. At all. We know there are big-ass squid in the ocean now, but they're nowhere near the 30 meters described in this abstract. Likewise for any ancient corollaries. But, okay, things were big in the Triassic! Lots of shit in prehistory was a hell of a lot bigger than what we have today - just look at dragonflies, or millipedes, both known to have ancient corollaries that were frankly gigantic by comparison to their modern counterparts. No problem there. But... okay, not only are we theorizing 30 m squid, but we're also just putting out there that they might've been intentionally killing these shonisaurs and then carefully arranging them in a particular way as a self-portrait? The very first display of self-portraiture (or, in fact, art of any kind) anywhere in the world? I'm the first person to defend the brains of my beloved cephalopods, but even I have to step back at that and say "hold on, not too sure about this."

Looking at this guy's profile on the Mount Holyoke site, I'm thinking he's got a serious penchant for theories that have, to be charitable, minimal basis in reality. I'm not saying that none of them are true - and they'd all make fantastic science fiction! - I'm just saying that I will not be holding my breath for further discoveries regarding the artistic endeavors of 30 meter Triassic squid.

Pity. I'd love to see what kind of city a civilization of giant squid would build.
rivendellrose: (*glee*)
DUDE.

Bear McCreary (he of the awesomely fantastic BSG soundtrack, among other things) wrote the official fanfare for the last shuttle launch tomorrow. Official NASA press release here.

That's tomorrow assuming it doesn't get delayed because of Weather. Either way, I'm such a crazy mix of sad at the end of an era and happy for another launch because that's always a cool thing, and now happy about Bear getting to do this, and aaaahhhhh.
rivendellrose: (stars)
Just heard Neil deGrasse Tyson say on NPR that we spend 4/10ths of 1 percent of our national spending on NASA. All told. 4/10ths of a SINGLE PERCENT.

And we're ending our shuttle program WHY? For god's sake, get us back out there, government! GO. NOW. Start doing new things like we used to do back in the 70s and 80s. Go to the Moon again. Go to Mars, please - go to asteroids, go somewhere! Please!

It's a very, very bad thing for me to be hormonal at the same time that we're basically decommissioning the American space program. I keep getting teared up whenever this comes up.
rivendellrose: (stars)
First, my monthly "any time the technology is ready, I'll start packing my bags" post: Blue sand dunes on Mars. Yes, really - blue.

And, while I'm at it, Nautiluses in danger of being overfished into extinction. They're essentially octopi who are still too scared to come out of their shells. Of course I love them. ♥
rivendellrose: (archaeological imagination)
...Five minutes after my last entry, I remember that, duh, I wouldn't want to major in psych. I would want to specialize in archaeology, as I should have done all along (and would have, if I hadn't been trying to finish my 2nd degree in only a year!).

Giant fossil bird found on 'hobbit' island of Flores.

It is not, alas, an eagle. (/Tolkien geek) But it is fantastically awesome. ♥ Particularly given the fabulous reverse-fairy-tale logic of giant storks eating 'hobbit' babies. Sick and wrong, yes, but oddly amusing as well...
rivendellrose: (drama)
The American Anthropological Association (the leading organization in anthropology in the US) has amended their mission statement to distance themselves from the practice of anthropology as science.

Well, that ought to be the last nail in the coffin of whether anthropology or sociology will win out as the study of human culture that will persist and continue to be worthy of consideration.

I've long had a feeling that there's a problem going on in anthropology, namely that while our little academic sibling sociology delves into broader, deeper, and more interesting subjects in the study of human society and takes advantage of all sorts of fascinating new blood from the fields of psychology, genetics, economics, statistics and science, anthropology... stares blindly around and sticks its collective head in the sand.

Now, to be fair, I kind of liked that I didn't have to do as much statistics in anthro as I did in soc, and I also liked that we tended in anthro to read more historical ethnography than, say, statistical studies from ten years ago. That was all part of why I majored in anthro instead of soc. So I have not exactly been part of the solution in this issue. But in the process of reading recent ethnography (for instance, Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day which, despite issues mainly stemming from the fact that I found it difficult to believe any intelligent gradudate student could be so fantastically naive as the author apparently was during his research, was a very fun and interesting non-academic book), I've noticed that all the good, new books that are actually getting attention... are filed under sociology, while the anthropology section of any bookstore I walk into consists almost entirely of Ruth Benedict, Margaret Meade, Thor Heyerdahl, and other books written pre-1980.

In short: If my field of academic study implodes, do I get a refund (or a re-do!) on my diploma? If I do, I think I'd like to study psychology this time. They're not ashamed of having science involved in their studies, and from the lectures I've been to they're a whole hell of a lot less in love with post-modern theory.

At least my English degree will never have this particular problem...
rivendellrose: (end of the world)
WSU scientist proposes one-way trip to Mars.

Insert obligatory joke about how once you've gotten used to living in Pullman, WA, Mars really can't be that big a change here.

All joking aside, I agree that we're probably not quite ready yet... but I wonder if planning something like this isn't the only way to get ready. We could say "oh, we're not ready yet!" forever. If it succeeded, it'd be the biggest move the Human species has ever made. I'd have to think seriously about whether I'd want to be in on it right now (that whole radioactivity / childbearing age thing), but eventually? I don't think I'd be able to resist if the opportunity actually arose.
rivendellrose: (try science)
This is a news website article about a scientific finding.

And this is me thinking how frustratingly accurate that parody is.
rivendellrose: (yay!)
Ladies and Gentlemen, sounds like we have discovered a potentially-habitable planet.

"Orbiting a nearby red dwarf star called Gliese 581 are 6 planets. One of them is a rocky ball, bigger than Earth, in the "habitable zone" where water is liquid and temperatures are human-friendly. It's possible we could live there."

Story is also on Yahoo News here, if you prefer that to I09. In fact, here - have the link on PCMag while I'm at it.

Update!: The Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, weighs in here. The short version: It may not really have water. But this is the first planet (other than ours) we've found in the "Goldilocks" zone, meaning there are almost certainly more out there. And that's a good thing.

So far, looks like it's 20 light years away, with liquid water, human-habitable temperatures, probably has an atmosphere, and the gravity should be about the same or slightly higher than Earth.

Still searching for corroboration on better news sites (send me your links, please, so that I can update and stay on top of things!).


From Phil: "So we don’t know if this planet is all that much like Earth — the surface gravity may be quite high if it’s dense and small, for example, or it may not have any air, or it may have a thick atmosphere like Venus — but what it’s telling us is that smaller, lower mass planets at the right distance from their star for liquid water are almost certainly common in the galaxy.

And that’s big enough news for me."
rivendellrose: (try science)
Okay, guys! I don't have cable, but if you do (and you happen to, you know, live in the US or another area that somehow gets the Discovery Channel), you should totally watch the premiere of "Bad Universe", Phil Plait's new show about the awesome science of astronomy.

It looks like Carl Sagan meets "Mythbusters" (and, keep in mind, I have a passionate love for both those things, so I don't say that lightly), and Phil is an all-around fantastic awesome guy (see his blog for way more proof of that than I could ever give you). Also, I really really really want this show to do well enough to go to DVD. Please. I'm begging. Go watch it, so that, someday, I can watch it. (Hush, I mean legally.) So, go. Check your listings. And then tell me about how awesome it is, so that I can squee and go try to find clips on YouTube or something. It'll be fantastic. ♥
rivendellrose: (try science)
Hey, neat! My allergy to nickel can be traced to a single receptor! And it triggers reactions in Humans, but not in mice!

Apparently '"this is the first time that an inorganic agent has been found to activate this pathway" of the innate immune system.'

Researchers estimate that about 5–10% of the population in the industrialized world is allergic to nickel on contact, and that figure reaches 10–20% in young women, who are more likely to be exposed to the metal in jewellery — particularly earrings and other piercings — that contain the metal.

Neat stuff there, and some good progress toward a more complete understanding of how allergies work in general.
rivendellrose: (try science)
There's a chain email going around claiming that on August 27, 2010, Mars will be as close as it's ever been to Earth and it will appear as large as the full moon in the sky.

This email is a fake. It had some truth to it... seven years ago, in 2003. It's been making the circuits through cyberspace every summer since. If you don't believe me (and why should you? My degree is in anthropology and English lit, not astronomy!) Take a look at Earthsky.org's page on the hoax, or the page on Hoax-slayer.com, or, my particular favorite, a post from 2008 about this email by the Bad Astronomer himself, Phil Plait. Who quite rightly points out that the photo being circulated isn't even a picture of Mars and our Moon - it's a picture of two moons of Saturn, including, at the bottom of the picture, some of Saturn's rings. Or, hell, for that matter, go read Phil Plait's original post from 2007, where he debunked it for the first time.

Mars is not ever as big as the Moon. If it was, we'd probably have some pretty serious tidal problems to show for the event.

By all means, go look in the sky. Here's a site that tells you how you can actually see Mars in July and August, and it's totally worth it. I've seen Mars through an observatory telescope just once, and it was amazing and very worthwhile (at the Jacobsen Observatory, which has very nice public sessions for local folks here in Seattle - go check them out! The time we went they had honest-to-god astronomers (including TAs and professors) out to talk to you about what you're seeing, and it's fantastic and fun, and you'll see awesome things and learn a lot!). But don't be fooled by lame chain emails that don't even bother to update seven years running. ♥

(Also, for amusement, here's the Snopes entry on the whole phenomenon of this email, including the original version that was sent out in 2003. Just because I'm kind of enjoying this whole project.)
rivendellrose: (try science)
My beloved Pacific Science Center here in Seattle is officially a city landmark. ♥
rivendellrose: (try science)
If Sports Newscasting Was Treated Like Science News Reporting

Honestly? I'd have a hell of a lot easier time with sports news if it went something like that. :P
rivendellrose: (city girl)
So, I've been putting off posting about this, because, hah, slightly embarrassing, but. We have bedbugs. I had what I thought was an allergic reaction to something in the new apartment shortly after I moved into this apartment (several months ago), but recently we've confirmed that it's bedbugs.

East coast friends, I hear the resurgence in these little bastards started out on your side of the states - any advice? We've already bought ultra-tight-weave covers for mattress and pillows and put those on, but I'm getting from the various websites I've read that this is not enough by far. I've heard 120 degrees is the magic temperature for killing off the bugs and their eggs, but I'm not sure how the hell to accomplish that with a lot of our stuff.

And to make matters worse, we're moving in 2 weeks, so... kind of busy right now. And yet also unwilling to drag an apparent infestation into a theoretically-uninfested apartment.

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